Sweeping changes across the North Coast's political landscape will present major challenges this election year both for voters and for candidates in state races, with one possible outcome being an almost entirely new and untested slate of leaders handling local problems in Sacramento.
Four of the North Coast's five seats in the state Legislature are being contested this year in reshaped political districts that have sown voter confusion and upset the traditional balance of power.
Sonoma County's standing as political kingmaker may no longer hold true in several races this election season, now that the county's influence is dispersed across three Assembly and two Senate districts.
But it's not just redistricting that has led to what one observer labeled the Year of Disruption in local politics. Also creating upheaval are a relatively new open-primary system in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the final round in November, the influence of moneyed interests in campaigns and a new generation of Democratic Party politicians who have a rare opportunity to seize control.
"It's certainly a paradigm shift," said Stephen Gale, chairman of the Sonoma County Democratic Party.
The 2014 legislative races are crucial because they could determine who represents the North Coast's interests in Sacramento for many years to come. Under a relaxing of term-limit rules passed by voters in 2012, legislators can serve up to 12 years in a single office.
And yet, there's a sense many voters on the North Coast aren't aware of which district they live in, or who's running.
"There has been a great deal of confusion among folks who are trying to figure out who is representing them, and who they'll be voting for in the next election," Gale said.
Political districts are reshaped every 10 years after the census to adjust for population shifts, ensuring that each district has roughly the same number of voters. But many people still are struggling to understand the boundaries set in 2010.
Santa Rosa, for instance, is in a coastal Senate district represented by Noreen Evans that stretches from Marin County to the Oregon border, but Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Sonoma are at the western edge of a district represented by Lois Wolk that spans the Interstate 80 corridor from Vallejo to Davis.
Evans' decision to not seek a second Senate term this year shocked many of her constituents and initially set off a scramble for her seat. The main beneficiary appears to be Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire, who is the only Democrat still entered in the contest.
McGuire is among the next generation of candidates who are seeking to rise through the ranks.
"Normally, they would defer to a more senior member who would just run, run, run," said David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University.
A similar trend is occurring in the 4th Assembly District that now includes all of Lake and Napa counties and 75 percent of Yolo County, as well as a section of Sonoma County including Rohnert Park and the unincorporated areas of Oakmont, Bennett Valley and Sonoma Valley. None of the candidates in that race has political experience at the state level.
Should Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, win re-election in the 10th Assembly District, which includes the southern portion of Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Marin County, he would become the North Coast's senior legislator in only his second term in office, aside from Wolk.